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iOS 5 Newsstand is one small, small step for digital magazines

We go hands-on with the newly added Newsstand app, but does it really change the magazine experience on the iPad?

Newsstand's not an app, it's really a folder.
Newsstand's not an app, it's really a folder.
Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

I've been reading magazines on my iPad for months. I didn't need iOS 5 to do it. I keep these apps--The New Yorker, Wired--in a separate folder on my iPad, called Reading. With iOS 5, that's no longer the case. A new baked-in app (or, rather, a type of smart folder) called Newsstand has now absorbed these apps into an iBooks-like wooden bookshelf.

Newsstand was one of the iOS 5 features that I'd been long awaiting, because I dreamed it would be a way of integrating books, periodicals, and all reading material into one destination. Alas, that's not the case here. Instead of being slotted into iBooks, Newsstand is a separate app. This means two icons to manage instead of one.

Also, I hoped that Newsstand would become a digital way of discovering not just magazines, newspapers, and journals, but a means of browsing covers and headlines from current issues. I browse real newsstands on the corner of 28th and Park, or at a bookstore, and based on what I see, I actually might buy an issue. A football preview came out this month? A cover story on a dinosaur discovery? Sure, I'll bite.

Newsstand on the iPad does none of this.

This isn't a newsstand-like experience.
This isn't a newsstand-like experience. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The Newsstand Store
A "store" link takes me to another blade of the App Store, where all the Newsstand-compatible apps (those that have been updated to get sucked into Newsstand, instead of showing up on your iPad as a square icon) can be browsed. Many of these are universal apps, although the iPhone's version of Newsstand doesn't currently show more than about 10 apps available. All of them say "free." This isn't true, not at all: download one and you'll get the same app experience you had before. Existing print subscribers can, of course, often get these digital versions gratis by signing up and activating their linked account. The rest of us can buy per-issue, or subscribe. Few of these apps have free trial issues, or even sample pages to browse like iBooks or Kindle books do. Buying one is a leap of faith. Sometimes, it's hard to even tell what an issue's table of contents is: that's for individual magazine app-makers to handle, but it adds up to a lot less info than you could glean at a real-life newsstand, just by flipping pages.

I can't add any apps to Newsstand that aren't Newsstand-compliant. I can't drag Pulse or other news-readers into that app, which doesn't make sense to me. I still have a "Reading" folder, but it now competes with Newsstand.

Covers? Yes. Cover Flow? No.
Newsstand does have a nice graphical trick: the current issue's image for any periodical is what shows up as a thumbnail on the Newsstand rack, giving the sensation of looking at current issues. I say "sensation" because clicking on that thumbnail still launches the magazine's app. You can't flip through issues like Cover Flow, nor can you browse all the issues of a single magazine you subscribe to, like you would on a real bookshelf. Each app is still slave to the publisher of the app, and none of them feels organically connected.

No clear way to automatically download
A co-worker asked me, "Can Newsstand automatically download new issues and have them ready when you travel?" To this point, I haven't found the settings that clearly enable this. Newsstand has no options or universal controls. The experience isn't intuitive. Downloaded issues of magazines don't act like discrete pieces of content; instead, they're perpetually bonded to the magazine apps from whence they came. The look of Newsstand suggests that it will be a reader app of sorts for all content; it isn't.

Newsstand is a prettied-up smart folder. It looks to compete with the bookshelf-like visual layout on the Kindle Fire. But why stop here? Why not have a "Video Store" where all video apps can be organized? What about a "Game Place" where all games are filed in a virtual drawer? Newsstand is either a step toward creating graphically designed folders in iOS, or it's a feature that should be folded into iBooks and given greater flexibility. Right now, it's neither here nor there, but it's bound to make people more aware that magazines and newspapers exist on the iPad. And maybe that's the real point: to grab your eye, drive a few sales, and that's it. Newsstand needs to be more, though--much more--to be everything it can be. Of course, these are early days, but my expectations are high, and they haven't been met yet.